Aldermanic candidates running in Chicago's 33rd Ward sounded off on issues ranging from the minimum wage and charter schools to "political dynasties" and "machine politics" at a Tuesday evening forum sponsored by several Northwest Side neighborhood groups.
In Chicago's 33rd Ward, incumbent Ald. Deb Mell is being challenged by Tim Meegan, a public school teacher at Roosevelt High School, and Annisa Wanat, a non-profit consultant and former Peace Corps volunteer. Mell, the daughter of former Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), was appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fill her father's council seat after he retired in July 2013.
At the packed candidate forum held at Newton Bateman Elementary School, Mell touted a number of accomplishments in her 18 months as alderman, including efforts around affordable housing, cracking down on "absentee" landlords, making the ward office more accessible and voting to raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2019.
Mell, however, went on the defense later in the discussion when forum moderator and WGN morning news anchor Dan Ponce asked the three candidates a question from the audience on the topic of breaking from "machine politics" and "the Chicago way."
The challengers seized the opportunity to take aim at the incumbent and her father, with Meegan saying Dick Mell "pulled no punches when it came to nepotism" and the "defense of patronage and political patronage." Meegan also made mention of Deb Mell's possible campaign finance violations involving in-kind political donations she recieved from her father, now a registered lobbyist.
"Nepotism and political dynasties in this town" have to stop, Meegan stressed.
"I stand against it," he added. "My father's an architect. I'm not. I made my own way. I think that being transparent about everything that I do is critically important."
Meegan quipped: "I can assure you, should my son decide to enter politics, I will not help him."
Mell responded, "For the record, my father didn't want me to go into politics."
"I love my father. Let's just get it out here. He was alderman for 38 years. But we're different people. I'm not my father," she stressed. "Anyone who knows me absolutely knows that. We conduct business very differently. I am very much a collaborator with the community. I want to hear from you before I make any decisions."
Mell, who never responded to the accusations about possible campaign finance violations during the forum, noted that while her father was alderman he greenlighted a proposed Walgreen's at Lawrence and Kimball avenues without consulting community members and organizations.
"He just approved it, and his thinking was any development is good development, right? I don't think that way. I think that our ward is too important to just throw stuff in there, and we really need to have good dialogue and collaboration with what you want to see on your corner," Mell said. "And so I stopped the project, and that made for a very interesting Christmas, to be quite honest."
Wanat, who joked that her father never wanted her to get into politics either, said she has run into people who have asked her, "What do you possibly think you're doing going up against the Mell's? Aren't you scared?"
"And I was like, you know what? I've spent three years in Afghanistan. I've met worse warlords than Dick Mell, so I'm not worried about that," she said. "I have the experience of standing up for people and standing up for communities to make sure that what they want is being heard, and standing up to power and saying, 'No, this is the right thing to do.'"
She argued that the Chicago City Council "has forgotten its legislative oversight powers and responsibilities."
"We have a city council that the majority of the members do what they're told without asking any questions," Wanat explained. "And that is a serious problem."
City budget issues
Wanat said she decided to run for city council after seeing too many "irresponsible budget decisions" approved.
"I think it's important to remind everybody that the budget affects the ward," she said. "If there is no money in the city budget, there is no money for our schools and our potholes."
As far as ideas on how to tackle the city's fiscal issues, Wanat called for proposals that would make city government more efficient, adding that forms of "progressive taxation" should also be explored, including a luxury tax on high-end goods and services and a congestion tax for the Loop. Wanat, who said "everything needs to be on the table" including a property tax increase, also wants to see the Chicago City Council reduced by half.
Meegan rejected proposals that would cut public employee pension benefits or raise property taxes. He wants to see the city's controversial tax increment financing program abolished and supports a financial transaction tax, along with other "progressive" tax ideas. On another budget-related matter, Meegan said he would bring participatory budgeting to the 33rd Ward, if elected, allowing residents to have a say in how aldermanic menu money is spent.
Mell, who said she is against raising property taxes, warned that there are no "magic bullets" for getting the city's fiscal house in order.
"Casinos aren't going to do it. Commuter tax isn't going to do it. Like the Sun-Times said, the financial transaction tax isn't anywhere close to doing it," she explained. "It's going to take a lot, right? We['ve] all got to get together and hang in there. And when we borrow, we borrow for infrastructure, and we make our city more attractive, and we attract more businesses and we get more people here."
"I guess I take a more conservative approach," Mell added. "It's just vital that we maintain good fiscal footing as we go along."
As far as the minimum wage, Wanat said it should be raised higher than $13 an hour, though she did not specify the type of increase she supports. Meegan backs raising the hourly minimum wage in the city to $15, a move he said would increase the purchasing power of low-wage workers and stimulate the local economy. Meegan also views a $15 minimum wage as a crime-prevention strategy.
"If you provide young people in particular with an outlook, with an opportunity to do right, to be able to support their families, that's what's going to deter crime," he said.
Mell, who said expanding employment opportunities is part of an anti-crime approach, countered that a $15 minimum wage could harm small businesses and lead to job losses.
"We need more jobs," she said. "Experts say $15 is too much for businesses. I don't want to get rid of businesses. I want to create more jobs. I think $13 an hour is a great start."
On the topic of public safety, Wanat noted her endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 and the Chicago Police Sergeants' Association. She said police overtime needs to be reduced and more officers should be hired "so they are not overworked."
Education was also a hot topic at the forum. Candidates were asked to explain what short- and medium-term efforts they support to strengthen public schools in the ward.
Mell said she is in favor of a moratorium on new charter schools in the 33rd Ward.
"I've had a couple of companies come in my ward office asking to set up new charter schools. I think that's a good place to start -- to not allow new charter schools" to open in the 33rd Ward, the alderman said, adding that the focus needs to be on improving traditional neighborhood schools and strengthening their surrounding communities.
Wanat also called for a charter school moratorium "so that we can funnel more money to our neighborhood schools" for more teachers and librarians, among other uses. She also said neighborhood schools need to be better utilized as community centers.
Meegan said he wants public schools staffed with more assistants in each department "to run copy" and "do some of the more mundane tasks."
"That would free up teachers to be a lot more creative, spend a lot more time one-on-one with the students that we serve and improve educational outcomes," he said.
Additionally, Meegan reiterated his support of abolishing the TIF program, which is reliant on property taxes. The city's economic development tool is essentially starving public schools of revenue, Meegan said, adding that the program is "so corrupt" that he does not think it could be reformed.
Candidates were asked whether they want to see Emanuel re-elected as mayor. Both aldermanic challengers said they will not be supporting Emanuel in the mayoral election. Meegan said he backs Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia for mayor, while Wanat said mayoral candidate Ald. Bob Fioretti's (2nd) vision for the city "closely matches" hers.
Mell, who did not answer directly, said she's currently focused on her own race, but does "like a lot of the things that our current mayor is doing."